The CSU: Blurring lines between safety and enforcement

In George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984, the names of government ministries were often counterintuitive to their purpose. Take, for example, the Ministry of Truth: the propaganda department tasked with crafting a public message, which included rewriting back copies of the London Times to make any narrative or historic moment fit party lines. The Memory Hole is another example. This was where the original copies of newspapers and books were tossed to be incinerated—effectively erasing any evidence (memory) of the initial truth.

Step out of fiction and into British Columbia circa 2019 and we have the “Community Safety Unit” (CSU), of which many argue the name alone waxes Orwellian considering its purpose.

“What the fuck is a Community Safety Unit?” I’m glad you asked.

Before the legalization of cannabis, all three levels of government warned weed’s black market operators of impending and increasing penalties once the new framework came into play. On a federal level, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said numerous times that one of his primary goals in legalization was to “eradicate the black market”. On a local level, Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart told preexisting cannabis entrepreneurs to “just get with the program” and line up with everyone else for a new licence. On a provincial level, however, public safety minister and solicitor general Mike Farnworth announced a task force: a projected team of 44 officers operating out of four regional offices (Surrey, Victoria, Kelowna, and Prince George) with the sole purpose of shutting down rogue pot shops.

As promised, the CSU was staffed and sicced on B.C.’s unlicensed cannabis dispensaries, and raids have kept on a steady incline since October 2018.

Under the Policing and Security Branch of the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, the CSU is responsible for enforcing the Cannabis Control and Licensing Act (CCLA): new provincial regulations that apply to “non-medical” cannabis stores. It’s effectively Sauron’s eye fixed on the illicit sale of weed to the recreational market. Operating with a $6.79 million budget, the unit has the “authority to enter premises where cannabis is being sold without a provincial retail store licence and take enforcement action, including making seizures of cannabis.”

Now in full force, the number of officers actually hired to Farnworth’s taskforce is currently considered private “operational information”. A quick check of an active job posting shows that each officer takes home between $64,000 and $73,000 annually. The lead line of the career description reads: “British Columbia has prioritized the goals of protecting children and youth, promoting health and safety, keeping the criminal element out of cannabis, keeping our roads safe, and supporting economic development.”

To date, CSU officers have visited 217 unlicensed retailers “for the purposes of education and to raise awareness about cannabis laws, the penalties and consequences for violating federal and provincial regulatory regimes,” wrote Colin Hynes, a public affairs officer for the CSU in an email to Inside the Jar (ITJ).

“Information was also shared [with retailers] on how to obtain a non-medical cannabis retail license and the enforcement activities of the CSU.”

Approximately 69 stores have since shut down voluntarily. More than 20 businesses refusing to close their doors have experienced a CSU bust.

Weathering a CSU raid

In the correspondence, Hynes wrote: “Our goal from the start has been voluntary compliance, however, those who continue to operate illegally should be warned that if they do not obtain a provincial licence they will have to close or will face increased enforcement action from the CSU.”

Well, of course a voluntary closure would prove easier, but what happens to those who just simply stay open?

Most recently in Vancouver, the hammer of “increased enforcement” fell on the head of the Medical Cannabis Dispensary (TMCD) in Davie Village and locals were able to witness firsthand what a CSU raid entailed. While the store and its operators explicitly state its purpose primarily exists to serve medical patients, there is no framework for the inclusion of compassion clubs or medical centres in the new provincial legislation, yet, so all unlicensed retail hubs are lumped into the category of “illicit” for now.

From the outside—a CSU sweep didn’t look like much was even happening. There were no marked cop cars, or boxes being carted out the front door, or handcuffs. I received a call on the morning of October 30 from a friend saying there was a raid taking place at a pot shop on Thurlow Street. I quickly tossed on some shoes, grabbed my dog, and speed-walked my way toward the village. I knew it had to be TMCD because it was one of the only black market shops still open in the city—a saving grace for both recreational consumers and medical patients looking for good, cheap weed.

When I got there, a small crowd of local activists and journalists had already gathered out front. Scrawled on the locked entryway was a handwritten note: “Closed. October 30th.” I joined the crowd and we stood around smoking joints as we waited for something to happen.

In the hour that I stood there, about 20 people came to try the door—a man dragging an IV-tree, a woman on a motorized wheelchair, and Roger Collette—a 69-year-old terminally ill lung cancer patient.

“I am not going to the government places. The weed is not that great and the price of it is unreal! These people are decent… we should have a right to access our medicine and not have to go through the government to get it,” he told reporters.

This dispensary hadn't caved to the new mandatory bylaw that product couldn't be seen from the street (which is why all legal shops have frosted or obscured windows), so I peered through the front bay to catch a glimpse of what was happening inside. The store’s executive director Dori Dempster was standing in front of the counter, looking on as two large caucasian men in navy blue windbreakers packed items into plastic bins.

I stood there, waiting in the cold for something to happen. The door stayed locked. The public stayed unsatiated. And by the time I clicked into what was happening, they were sneaking the product out the back door. I scampered around back to catch the final bin being loaded into an unmarked pickup truck and driving off.

Not obtaining much information from the three Vancouver Police Department officers standing guard—or literally a word from the CSU agents—I called Dempster to gain some clarity about what had gone on during the raid.

“I got the call that morning when I was in the shower. They said: “the CSU is here and you’re being raided”. When I got down there, I wasn't even sure I’d be allowed in my own building. I was met by a man named “Roger”, the head of the CSU. He explained to me who they were and what they were there to do,” she told me on the phone.

“I was clearly losing colour and looked quite upset, so he reached out and touched my shoulder, and asked me if I was okay,” she continues. “To which I said: "no, I am not okay. You’re robbing people of their medicine. How can I be okay when you’re interfering with our access to provide help to sick people? No, I am not okay.””

“He had no business reaching out to touch me, console me, when he was there to rob me. Don’t be my comfort when you’re stealing everything we have worked so hard for. How dare you try to comfort me at this time.”

She said the officers took several pictures in each room, dumped the store’s inventory of cannabis products into large boxes, and left in a truck. At that time nothing was catalogued, and nothing was inventoried.

“I’m not sure how or if all of our inventory ended up at the CSU office because of the sloppy way that they treated all of our property,” she adds. TMCD received a handwritten lists with the itemized products and retail value 10 days later.

Dempster said the official inventory was done following the raid without her supervision.

“Boxes went out the door, they left, we have no idea where they went with our stuff and we’re just expected to accept the list to say this is what they found.”

Dempster said a couple of months before the raid, a CSU representative had stopped by to deliver information about enforcement action, but added that she and her legal team took steps to stay in contact with the agency.

“Knowing that we had a development permit that had a unanimous decision from the Board of Variance of which we were in complete compliance, there was no reason for us to believe the CSU would be coming in,” she said.

“Our lawyer contacted them and told them he was working with us, that we had a development permit we were obtaining an extension for, and the organization would be applying for a provincial licence. We were in full contact with members of the CSU.”

The stores owner Dana Larsen showed up mid-raid and made it clear to journalists that he would reopen once the officers left. The store was open to the public and restocked later that day.

What’s the difference between the CSU and metro police?

The CSU is a provincial enforcement unit separate from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and has no affiliations with the Vancouver Police Department’s Drug Unit, which is only responsible for the enforcement of drug-related offences under the Controlled Drug and Substance Act. However, during raids metropolitan police are informed and often present on site to protect both parties. In the case of the most recent CSU raid in Vancouver, there were three VPD officers with a front row seat. As the protest out front was entirely peaceful, they left out back after the truck pulled away.

CSU Officers are classified as B.C. public service employees and the recruitment processes and practices align with that of the broader provincial public service. A senior investigator, for example, plays a role in ensuring “the duties of the investigators are conducted in a professional manner and in accordance with the principles of administrative fairness, so that the objectives of the legislation are upheld, including protecting public health and safety, preventing young people from accessing cannabis, and deterring criminal activity.”

Qualifications for a CSU position include post-secondary education in administrative law, investigation, enforcement, or criminology, a minimum of five years experience in a compliance and enforcement environment, and experience in conducting investigations. As Special Provincial Constables (SPCs), officers "carry-out regulatory actions under the delegation of the Director,” Hope Latham, another public affairs officer, tells ITJ. “[They] may also carry-out quasi-criminal investigations through their appointment as SPCs making recommendations to the B.C. Prosecution Service for provincial and criminal charges.”

Each province has taken its own steps to snuff out radical pot shops. While Ontario is placing cement blocks in front of shop doors, Nova Scotia is slapping on the cuffs. Here in B.C., our enforcement has a lighter touch publicly, saving its punches for the courtroom.

According to the provincial Cannabis Control and Licensing Act, fines can range up to $100,000 or a year in prison. In some cases, both. However, that is not a hard-and-fast ceiling.

“It’s my understanding that they [the CSU] will use the list they sent us afterwards at some point in time, if they choose, to levy a fine against us that is double the retail value of the product sold,” said Dempster. She had been advised by TMCD’s legal team not to reveal the estimated value of the product taken that day, but would say it was “substantial” and that her shelves were cleared of product when the officers left.

“It’s my opinion that them seizing things in the manner they did, it [the value] is completely in question as to what they have.”

While she doesn't expect the product to be returned, Dempster said there is a provision in the rules that medical patients may use a form supplied by the CSU to request their medical cannabis back. Based on her conversations with customers, she estimates several hundred people have requested for their products back and they are now waiting for the next steps in the process.

Which stores are legal?

There are currently 184 open and pending legal cannabis stores in the province of B.C. There’s a map and list available here. These are either owned by licence holders approved by the Liquor and Cannabis Regulation Branch (LCRB) operating as private non-medical cannabis retail stores or are publicly owned stores operated by the Liquor Distribution Branch (LDB), called B.C. Cannabis Stores. These two provincial entities set rules and monitor anyone who wants to sell weed through a retail storefront. Online sales are currently only legal through the provincial website. None of these are approved consumption spaces or medical centres, or can have ties to black market growers or product.

Clearly, there are more than 184 stores in the province. These are stores that exist outside of the new regulations—the majority of which were established before legalization. They served and continue to provide cannabis to the population of both recreational and medical consumers using standards and safety protocols developed long before they were federally, provincially, or municipally mandated.